Stephen Wolfram is a one-time precocious physicist who left academia to build his own company. He is the founder of Wolfram Research whose flagship product is Mathematica, a very sophisticated and useful software for doing all kinds of math. In 1992 Wolfram went into a self-imposed 10-year seclusion to write a book. The result was a 1200-page self-published tome called A New Kind of Science. In this article, I evaluate the “science” in A New Kind of Science, using some general and obvious characteristics of science (see here for the list that I am using). It is next to impossible to address all the flaws, blunders, and swindles that are so prevalent in the book. I’ll just pick a few that stand out, especially those in its physics portion.
Materiality and Observation in Wolfram’s Science
The new kind of “science” does not study material objects. It is based on Wolfram’s “pivotal discovery,” – a phrase that he repeats in every other sentence in the book! – on which he stumbled in 1984 in a computer experiment, which showed that complexity arises from simple programs. His “science” uses programming rules that are applied to automaton cells and networks to create complex pictures on computer screens.
Theories in Wolfram’s “Science”
Wolfram’s ultimate goal is to produce pictures of the objects of “traditional” science on his desktop. He considers every production of such pictures a triumph of his “science.” It is Wolfram’s way of “explaining” things – which is a necessary but not sufficient property of a scientific theory. For example, if his rules can produce a picture of a snowflake on his desktop, he thinks he has given an “explanation” of how snow flakes are formed, never mind that he steals a discovery of the traditional science – that a speck of ice at a point of a snowflake prevents the addition of more ice at that point – and uses it to write his picture-producing program.
Since biological systems are complex, and since Wolfram’s “simple rules” can produce complex pictures, biology becomes his most favorite subject, especially because he can label the “genetic material” as programs, the holy grail of cellular automata. What does the “genetic material” do? According to Wolfram, it produces the visual features of the living things: the stripes of a zebra, the regular hexagons of a beehive, the polka dots on a fish, leaf patterns of plants, petals of flowers, …. What about evolution? After all, you can’t talk about biology without talking about evolution. What does evolution boil down to in Wolfram’s biology? Adaptation. And adaptation is reduced to trying to hide from predators, and this involves … you guessed it: protective patterns and pigmentation on skins and shells!